Sungi’s conference on Balochistan
I met Sheik Asad Rehman, Director Programs at Sungi Development Foundation and a veteran of 1970s Baloch war of resistance, at the residence of a senior Baloch government official.
Asad had come to Quetta on a short trip to make initial arrangements for an upcoming conference on Balochistan being organized by his non-governmental organization, Sungi, in Islamabad. This was the second major conference on Balochistan to be held in Islamabad within a period of one month.
Previously, Syed Abida Hussain, a senior PPP leader, and her husband Syed Fakhar-e-Imam, an ex-speaker of the National Assembly of Pakistan, had made a similar effort in the federal capital under the umbrella of Friends of Balochistan. The event arranged by the politician couple in Islamabad received mixed reactions. It was widely publicized in the national media to give an impression that some people in Islamabad truly cared for the Balochs and their deprived province. Yet, the conference received negative publicity as well back in Balochistan after Hakeem Baloch, a former acting chief secretary of Balochistan, had walked out of the conference.
I asked Hakeem the causes for his walk out, he said Shahid Hussain, a former chief secretary of Balochistan, had used derogatory language against late Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti on the stage. When the organizers refused to provide any of the Baloch delegates a chance to rebut the allegations leveled against Nawab Bugti by the former chief secretary, Mr. Baloch, the author of several books, decided to walk out of the conference.
Hakeem emerged as a hero in Quetta, at least for a week or so, after several local newspapers published the news of his walk-out on the upper fold of front pages. The organizers, on their part, also issued a number of rebuttals in the media which failed to overshadow Hakeem’s heroic image that the conference in Islamabad had created. Later on, Hakeem jotted down a three-part article in Daily Intekhab, a popular local Urdu newspaper, about the same conference to “expose” some pro-establishment participants of the conference who used the opportunity to ridicule the Baloch leaders.
Sitting comfortably in the sofa with his laptop on and eyes fixed at me, Asad Rehman was crystal clear about what he was going to do in his conference. He surely knew holding a conference in Islamabad needed extraordinary strategizing rather than encouraging to bring everyone else to their knees. Conferences on Balochistan permanently face the threat of sabotage, interruptions, walk-outs and out-of-the-conference-hall-demonstrations.
” This is going to be a different conference,” foresaw Asad as I filled half of my glass with a little water without letting my attention deviate while absorbing his strategy. I knew an effort being made by Sungi and particularly Asad Rehamn, an old friend of Balochistan, was going to be something worthwhile. I had met Samina Omar Asghar Khan, the Executive Director of Sungi, an NGO her late husband Omar Asghar Khan (1953-2002) had founded in 1989, in New Delhi in a nippy January this year.
Staying together at India Islamic Cultural Center (IICC) and exchanging views on scores of social and political issues on dinner during the three-day conference, I got to know Samina very well. Samina is a wonderful lady with a very soft corner for the genuine rights of smaller provinces. She also spoke about the country-wide signature campaign her organization had launched to express solidarity with the people of Balochistan and coax the government to review a host of its antagonistic policies towards the disgruntled province.
I was glad that Asad and Samina continued to reaffirm their commitment with the people of Balochistan and keep the issue alive on the national front by highlighting the unchanged situation in Balochistan.
” We know nothing has changed in Balochistan since the unfolding of the Balochistan Package,” continued Asad, ” We want the conference to be broad-based so that everyone directly or indirectly linked with the conflict should be heard and given a chance to speak. We will invited the representatives of the political divide as well as chief of the army in the conference even if they do not turn up.”
Sungi did it well by organizing a two-day conference in Islamabad in the second week of June with the objective to highlight the issue of Balochistan on a larger level. The biggest success of the conference was the presence of highly powerful people from the government as well as key opposition leaders. The conference largely remained noncontroversial and accommodative of all sections of the Baloch society.
If one was keen to know what actually was happening in Balochistan then the speeches of Governor Balochistan Nawab Zulfiqar Ali Magsi and Senator Raza Rabbani of the Pakistan People’s Party, who engineered the much-hyped 18th amendment, were sufficient. The Baloch governor clearly stated that nothing had changed in Balochistan even after the presentation of the Balochistan Package and the set of constitutional reforms. In his speech, Magsi complained that the recommendations of the Balochistan Package were not being implemented yet due to which Balochistan’s sense of deprivation continued to remain deep-rooted.
Senator Raza Rabbani shared exactly the same concerns of Governor Magsi. He said the federation would have to face “serious consequences” if the military and civil bureaucracy created hurdles on the path of the Balochistan Package, the 18th Amendment and the National Finance Commission (NFC) award. Six months have passed since the Balochistan Package was unveiled. Everyone justifiably expects a positive change on the ground in the province which has not taken place yet. If the governor of the province and a prominent leader of the ruling party, Raza Rabbani, are dissatisfied over the state of affairs in Balochistan then one needs to safely conclude that the level of anguish, dissatisfaction and betrayal of ordinary Balochs is much deeper. Balochistan has not received the healing touch yet which is desperately required.
Friends like Asad and Samina are commendable for the stupendous job they are doing back in Islamabad by raising the woes of the Baloch people in a democratic way by holding seminars and launching signature campaigns. Such initiatives tremendously help to counter the state propaganda that happiness has returned and normalcy restored in Balochistan after the presentation of the Balochistan Package. Until the Baloch issue is permanently settled, the friends of Balochistan in NGOs, media and think-tanks ought to play their role to inform target audiences in principal cities like Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi about the repressive actions that refuse to liberate Balochistan from their grip. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for more similar endeavors in the future.
(This write-up originally appeared in The Baloch Hal, Balochistan’s first online English newspaper)